Le Mans 24hrs:

Le Mans, June 19th, predictable but interesting

Having celebrated the 50th running of Le Mans last year, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest did not make such a fanfare about the 60th anniversary of the 24-hour race, though the parade of old cars and previous winners has now become a regular and popular feature of the preliminaries. Porsches dominated the entry list with 11 of their type 956 Group C cars, three from the factory and eight in the hands of customers, virtually identical to the ones which took the top three places last year. Jacky Ickx led the Rothmans-Porsche works team hoping for an unprecedented seventh win, partnered by Derek Bell hoping for his fourth. Germans Jochen Mass and Stefan Bellof shared the second, with Americans Al Holbert and Hurley Haywood in the third with Australian Vern Schuppan. A fourth 956 was used by several members of the team as a training car, equipped with cameras and running with a high downforce tail, and as Ickx qualified it seventh fastest, below last year's pole time, it was seriously considered running it for Schuppan and Jurgen Barth.

Other than rivalry from their customers, their main opposition came from Lancia-Martini and from the local constructor Jean Rondeau. Lancia entered three of their 2.6-litre V8 turbocharged LC2/83s for Michele Alboreto/Teo Fabi, Piercarlo Ghinzani/Hans Heyer, and Jean-Claud Andruet/Alessandro Nannini/Paolo Barilla, the cars little changed since their previous outings save for new nose profiles for extra speed on the Mulsanne Straight, and the adoption of Hewland 70 per cent, locking differentials instead of solid transmission.

Rondeau's main bid came from three Max Sardou designed ground effect M482 cars, sponsored by 170 Ford dealers in France, powered by the Cosworth 3.9-litre DFL engine, and driven by Henri Pescarolo/Thierry Boutsen, Jean Rondeau/Alain Ferte and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud/Philippe Streiff, with Michel Ferte acting as the `spare' driver for all three. Vic Elford returned to racing with the oldest of the seven French cars, a DFV powered M379, with Anny-Charlotte Verney and Joel Gouhier.

Last year the Nimrod Aston Martin team was looked upon by the French as a typically British entry, full of amateur enthusiasm, tinged by aristocracy, but inexperienced. This year the car is lower, lighter and altogether more competitive, the 570 b.h.p. Aston Martin V8 engine already running as economically as next year's regulations will require. The works Nimrod was driven by Ray Mallock (who'd done much of the development work) with Mike Salmon and American Steve Earle. The Emka Aston Martin entered by Michael Cane Racing for Steve O'Rourke/Tiff Needell/Nick Faure was making its debut at Le Mans, having raced once before at Silverstone in May, and being 85 kg. lighter than the Nimrod though powered by a similar Tickford prepared engine it too had to be regarded as a serious British prospect.

Porsche take qualifying very seriously these days, and brought special engines for their three team cars to use on Wednesday. The flat-six 2.6-litre engines were equipped with larger turbochargers which gave them a lot more power for the 5.5 km. Mulsanne Straight, perhaps as much as 700 horsepower with 1.4 bar boost, though being less responsive and harder to drive through the slower corners.

With everything to his liking, and using soft compound tyres, Ickx set a fastest time of 3 min 16.6 sec, an average of 249.56 kph. (155.1 mph. ), some 12 seconds faster than his pole time last year. Mass, second fastest, recorded 3 min. 20.98 sec and Ghinzani 3 min. 21.31 sec in his Lancia, but the Italian team's challenge was blunted when Alboreto's engine failed at Mulsanne on its first practice lap.

Thursday's times were more representative for the race, the works Porsches now having their 620 b.h.p. engines running on 1.2 bar boost. Alboreto's Lancia was fitted with a quick engine, though, and he posted the fastest time of the evening at 3 min. 20.79 sec so that the grid order read Porsche-Lancia-Porsche-Lancia. The Lancia team hadn't come to Le Mans expecting to win and Ickx had put pole position beyond their reach, but second and fourth fastest times looked respectable enough for their fourth and most important outing with the new cars.

Fifth fastest was the Joest Racing, Marlboro backed 956 of Bob Wollek/Stefan Johansson/Klaus Ludwig. Wollek had been in hospital a week before having a pinched nerve in his vertebrae operated on, so his seven-hour stint at the wheel would be something of an ordeal. Jonathan Palmer put the Canon Porsche 956 into sixth place, driving with Jan Lammers and Richard Lloyd, his time of 3 min. 27.48 sec also being a second quicker than last year's pole firm of 3 min. 28.4 sec. Mario Andretti returned to Le Mans in the Kremer Racing 956 with his son, Mike, and Philippe Alliot to be ninth fastest, just behind the Holbert Haywood/Schuppan works car.

The Nimrod was 16th fastest on 3 min. 35.78 sec quickest of all the normally aspirated cars and some eight seconds inside its time last year. The Rondeaus were unexpectedly slow, lacking sheer speed on the Mulsanne straight, Pescarolo being 17th fastest at 3 min. 36.06 sec.

Of the 54 cars that practised just 51 started the race, the first time in nine years that the full entry of 55 has not been filled. For the fourth year running the weather remained fine throughout the race so records could be expected to fall, although the fuel consumption regulations allowing 25 stops still meant that the pace would be dictated by economy rather than power. As usual the Rothmans-Porsches went straight into the lead, Mass ahead of Ickx, with Lammers third on the opening lap. The young Dutchman, on his debut at Le Mans, slipstreamed Ickx down the straight on the second lap and was right behind Ickx in the braking area. Then the Canon car started to spin wildly, hitting Ickx the second time it went round and then Ickx spun onto the grass. Neither car was much damaged though Ickx went to his pit to have new tyres fitted (the front body panel was changed at the first pit stop) and dropped to 29th place almost a lap down. It was not an auspicious start for the man who is the clear favourite every time he drives at Le Mans.

Mass led Schuppan to the first pit stop followed by Alboreto who was having to resist the temptation to shoot past and put the Lancia into the lead. The Porsches were running to plan at 3 min. 35 sec but the days when the Italians would go rushing off into the distance with a "hare" seem to be over, the result of increasing professionalism. Ludwig in the Marlboro car ran fourth followed by Mario Andretti, John Fitzpatrick's Porsche 956, Volkert Merl in the "New Man" sponsored Porsche 956, and the Lancias of Ghinzani and Nannini. Casualties in the first hour included Jaussaud's Rondeau M482 which had a serious oil leak and stopped with the gauge failing to register (teams are not allowed to replenish oil when they like), Richard Cleare's Porsche powered Kremer CK5 which had a turbocharger seize up, the Belga sponsored Porsche 936C which had a fuel pump failure, and Martin Birrane's Ford C100 which, in the hands of Francois Migault, was driven faster than in practice and ran out of fuel.

Alboreto's Lancia was checked in the pits as the gears were difficult to select, and after 90 min. the car stopped at Arnage with a seized differential. At the two-hour mark following the second pit stops, Bellof and Holbert were running in convoy at the head of the field followed by Heyer in the Lancia, Johansson in the Marlboro car, Bell and Schickentanz (956).

The Nimrod was going well, though showing signs of electrical problems that would hamper it through the night. One of the driveshaft-driven alternators was overcharging and boiling the battery, but the car was placed 18th at quarter distance, and the Emka 29th.

The Ickx/Bell car moved up to third place at dusk though a lap behind its team-mates, drawing clear of Fitzpatrick/Hobbs/Quester, Andretti/Andretti/Alliot, Schickentanz/Merl/de Narvaez and Edwards/Keegan. The Marlboro 956 had dropped back with a misfire which was traced to two faulty plugs, and was now five laps behind the leader.

The Mass and Fitzpatrick cars both fell right back after midnight, the works car with the engine sounding rough and the latter with a fuel pressure problem. The trouble with Fitzpatrick's car was finally established when it stopped out on the circuit with a sheared fuel pump drive, and retired, but Mass' engine sounded worse and worse as it transpired that exhaust valves on one or two cylinders had burned out. Ghinzani and Heyer were dogged by fuel pressure problems too, using the electric pump to supplement the mechanical pump, and eventually retired when the pressure failed on the circuit. Then the remaining Lancia team car of Nannini/Andruet/BariIla lost turbo boost pressure on one bank, and was retired when a new turbocharger failed to cure it.

At half distance Porsche 956s held the top eight places, Holbert/Haywood/Schuppan being half a lap ahead of Ickx/Bell with the Andretti car third, three laps behind. The Marlboro car had climbed to fourth, six laps down, Schickentanz/Merl/de Narvaez were fifth, Edwards/Keegan sixth and now joined by Fitzpatrick, with Mass and Bellof seventh. Desire Wilson was happily driving the "Boss" sponsored 956 with Lassig and Plankenhorn in eighth place, and the supremacy of the German cars was broken by the normally aspirated, BMW six-cylinder powered Sauber driven by the Americans Tony Garcia/Al Nason/Diego Montoya. Pescarolo Boutsen held tenth place for Rondeau, ahead of the Canon Porsche which needed extensive rebuilding of the suspension. The Emka needed to have a fractured rear wishbone replaced, and this involved virtually reconstructing the suspension which took a couple of hours.

The aspirations of Ickx and Bell took a dive just after six o'clock in the morning when the car coasted to a stop at Mulsanne. They had just moved into the lead, but Holbert was ahead again even as the number 1 car stopped at the side of the road. Bell reported the problem on the radio and set about fitting the spare black box ignition control pack, and since the team drivers had rehearsed this the car was running healthily again a quarter of an hour later, but now four laps behind. The Andrettis moved up to second place a lap clear of Ickx/Bell, their only problem having been a puncture early in the race. Alliot earned a rebuke from Mario Andretti for spinning the car a couple of times during the night, though without doing any damage. Mass' 956 retired on Sunday morning when it wouldn't restart after a routine stop. The crew tried for half an hour to get the engine running, changing the plugs and pouring water on the starter to keep it cool, and it is remarkable that the battery stood up to it. After hours of running on four or five cylinders, and overheating, the engine refused to work any more; only two of the 11 956s that started the race failed to finish. Pescarolo's Rondeau retired with engine failure and the Nimrod went from 13th place with a connecting rod breakage.

Though four laps behind, Ickx and Bell had no thoughts of finishing second. They had been careful with their fuel consumption in the first half of the race and could afford to push on, Ickx lowering the lap record to 3 min. 29.7 sec. (145.34 m.p.h.) at breakfast time. By 11 o'clock they'd overtaken the Andrettis to move into second place, and were helped by three short delays on the leading car, first when the rear subframe showed signs of collapsing and had to be replaced, then when the rear undershield worked loose this is part of the ground effect design), and finally when the left-side door fell off when Schuppan was driving.

The race was building up for a close finish between the two works cars, and no orders were issued by the management either. With an hour to run Holbert/Haywood/Schuppan were slightly less than two laps in front, but their car had started overheating and needed to have the header tank filled during the last stop. This involves removing the bodywork, and as Holbert left the pits Bell was on the same lap and closing fast. Driving with one eye on the temperature gauge Holbert went as fast as he dared, and going into his last lap a jet of smoke came from the left-hand exhaust pipe. The last lap was touch-and-go for the 956, but it finished 64 seconds ahead for a popular victory.

The fact that the ACO has spent 10 million francs on building up the spectator protection didn't prevent thousands of people from swarming onto the track at the, finish, though last year's scene when the leaders could not reach the timing line was not repeated. Behind the phalanx of Porsches came the Sauber-BMW in ninth place, sounding as good as when it started. The British entered Porsche 911 Turbo prepared by Charles Ivey for John Cooper/Paul Smith/David Ovey finished 11th and won the Group B class, just as they won Group 5 last year. Jeff Allam/Steve Soper/James Weaver came 20th in the works Mazda 717C which had spent a good deal of time having a misfire attended to, but the performance of the Emka in finishing 17th was loudly applauded by the British contingent, who surrounded it with Union Jacks flying as soon as O'Rourke stopped.

Porsche's steamroller victory had been easily forecast, barring catastrophes, and looked even more impressive than last year's result. But whether it is good for endurance racing is another matter, because it would need a vast budget and a great deal of professionalism on the part of Ford, BMW, Jaguar or Aston Martin to produce a competitive machine that is equally reliable. For the moment, hopes of a contest concentrate solely on Lancia. — MLC.